Picture yourself as a Midwestern dairy farmer 100 years ago, and
a neighbor farmer tells you she's going to stop raising cows and
start raising fish. You think she's insane since you can walk to
the local stream and score a half-dozen crappies with a flimsy net.
You observe her endeavors but refrain from saying, "I told
you so," when she can't find a market for "farmed fish"
and her plan fails miserably.
Fast-forward a century, and such a plan doesn't seem so outlandish.
There are more people who fish, more concerns over lake pollution,
more health-conscious fish eaters and a number of other factors
creating opportunities in markets that never before seemed promising.
Your neighbor was a woman ahead of her time.
Fish food for thought
People have been raising fish for the past few decades, usually
bait fish or fish for stocking lakes and rivers. But true "aquaculture"the
raising of fish for human consumptionis spawning nationwide
and in the district.
The industry is still small in the Ninth District compared with
the likes of Idahowhich raises some 40 million pounds of rainbow
trout, or about 90 percent of the nation's commercial productionbut
is expanding. Idaho's advantage is a gigantic underground aquifer
that naturally bubbles up water at a constant 58 degrees Fahrenheitideal
for rainbow trouton the northern side of the Snake River in
southern Idaho. On the river's south side, geothermal 200-degree
water is available, which, when mixed with cooler spring water,
provides a very inexpensive way to breed warm water fish like tilapia,
the state's second most popular farmed fish, which originates in
Africa and Israel.
Bigger fish to fry
The fish farm industry in the district is located predominantly
in Wisconsin and Minnesota, which are homes, respectively, to 230
and 200 commercial bait, stocking and fish food farms.
According to a 1998 Wisconsin aquaculture producer survey prepared
by the Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection
(DATCP), the industry grew about 3 percent annually from 1993 to
1998, vs. 6 percent growth for the nation. Gross sales from Wisconsin
fish farms totaled $10.5 million in 1998, and average sales per
farm were $74,660.
At the time of the survey, food fish comprised 35 percent of total
gross sales, bait fish 33 percent and stocking fish 22 percent.
(Nonfish, such as frogs and water plants, held 10 percent of gross
sales.) It is estimated that Wisconsin aquaculture generates roughly
2,600 jobs and $80 million annually in total economic impact.
Much of the current growth in Wisconsin can be attributed to the
decline of wild fish harvest, favorable overall demand conditions
for fish and seafood, and strong federal government funding for
aquaculture research and education. The federal government invested
$121 million in aquaculture support alone in 1996, states a 1998
report to the Wisconsin Legislature by the Agriculture Department.
Diversification of species and markets is increasing, while Wisconsin's
historically strong trout sector continues to be the largest fish
An experienced fish farmer, Ruby Kettula, secretary and treasurer
of the Wisconsin Aquaculture Association, has been in the business
in Frederic, Wis., since 1956. "When we first got into the
business, the only type of fish people raised was trout, because
that was the only type of fish domesticated enough that we could
get eggs from. ... Since then people have gotten into other types
of fishyellow perch, walleye, muskie, bass, blue-gilled sunfish."
Kettula added, "No one dreamed that anyone would pay money
for those kinds of fish because the lakes had a lot of them. Since
then the lakes have had a lot of pressure with all of the fishing.
Kettula and her family sell fingerlings mainly to hatcheries.
From there they go to various lake associations, sportsmen's clubs
and other hatcheries. They also sell fish for stocking purposes
to lakes in Wisconsin, Illinois, Indiana, Michigan and Minnesota.
The Kettulas produce primarily rainbow and brown trout, hatching
1 million eggs a year or about 75,000 pounds of trout, but also
some walleye and bass.
A strong economy for the past decade has increased overall demand
for fish and other comparatively higher-priced seafood items, said
Myron Kebus, state veterinarian for the Wisconsin DATCP. But Kebus
and Kettula are concerned that greater regulation is slowing industry
"The only thing that keeps us from becoming larger producers
are the regulations on water use and discharge. ... You need a permit
for everything, to dig a pond, to discharge and pump water,"
Kettula said. Because of the regulations, Kettula doesn't think
fish farming is as easy as it used to be.
Ten years ago, fish farmers could expand where they wanted without
worrying too much about runoff into a nearby lake, but now, farmers
face a whole gamut of regulations and environmental issues, Kebus
"As aquaculture began to promote itself, it also attracted
the attention of regulators," said Kebus. For example, spring-fed
ponds, once freely used, are now off-limits to new fish farmers.
Fish farmers face more regulations when drilling wells for water.
Wetland issues have also surfaced, forcing fish farmers to deal
with more restrictions if their property has developed growth of
wetland plants and animals, Kebus added. Due to tighter health codes,
and to restrict invasive species, stricter requirements have also
been placed on farmers who import or export fish.
But Kebus sees additional potential, despite increased regulation.
"The market is strong in Wisconsin because there have been
producers who began the development of their businesses decades
ago, so it's established. In terms of food, there's a market for
a wholesome, clean product. People who do like to eat fish have
certain concerns." Kebus added, "We have statewide mercury
advisories of all fish. We've discovered the levels of mercury are
50 times lower than nonfarm fish, virtually nondetectable."
Someone who has his line in more than one pond is fish farmer
Ron Johnson, also vice president of the Wisconsin Aquaculture Association.
Johnson, a wildlife biologist, not only runs a trout farm in Iron
River, Wis., but also owns a bed and breakfast, where guests can
catch their own breakfast. He raises 5,000 to 8,000 rainbow trout
each year in spring-fed ponds and sells them locally through his
Internet and espresso cafe. He also sells fish nationally via his
Web site. "I'm small compared to most people. ... I can't raise
enough to keep up with the demand."
Johnson is also chairman of a joint project to build a $3 million,
40-acre aquaculture demonstration facility in Red Cliff, Wis. The
University of Wisconsin-Superior and Red Cliff Band of Lake Superior
Chippewa will jointly operate the state-funded facility. The center
will be used for applied research and dedicated to teaching people
how to raise cold-water fish, such as trout and salmon, for human
consumption. Construction is set to begin in May 2002, and the facility
is scheduled for completion in the spring of 2003. The project represents
a push for technology that may help with industry production, Johnson
In Minnesota, the land of 10,000 lakes, fish farmers don't have
as much to brag about as Wisconsin farmers, but markets there are
also expanding. Half of the aquaculture license holders are hobby
farmers, and the other 100 are serious commercial fish farmers,
estimated Richard Ying Ji, aquaculture specialist with the Minnesota
Department of Agriculture. That number doesn't take into consideration
the roughly three dozen bait farmers in the statea $2 million
industry, said Ying Ji. He estimates fingerling farming is a $1
million to $1.5 million industry for the state.
For Minnesota fish farmers, the biggest moneymaker is raising
fish for human consumption. In fact, the production of the state's
largest fish farm, MinAqua Fisheries of Renville, is about equal
to the production of the other 11 fisheries in the state. The fishery,
a cooperative organization run by soybean farmers, purchases fingerlings
and raises them to market size in a $4 million facility, and has
annual sales of about $2.5 million. The co-op is the second largest
tilapia producer in North America.
Mel Stocks, president of MinAqua Fisheries, said they've been selling
tilapia since May 1998, "It's been a struggle until now. ...
There was an oversupply of fish from mid-1998 until late 2000. It's
very much like any other commodity businesscorn, soy or hogs.
The law of supply and demand rules," Stocks said.
Tilapia need 85-degree water to survive, and heat from the Southern
Minnesota Beet Co-op's wastewater is used to keep 1 million gallons
of water in the indoor tanks at a stable temperature.
The secret to MinAqua's success is that it sells tilapia live,
primarily to Asian markets in Toronto, Calgary, Vancouver, Chicago,
Minneapolis and New York City. The fishery justifies spending extra
money to deliver a live fish because the value of a dead tilapia
is 40 percent lower. "Tilapia has just surpassed trout as the
third largest farm-raised fish in North America," said Stocks,
"Catfish is first, followed by salmon."
Stocks does not foresee a lot of growth in the live tilapia market,
but he does for the processed market. Imports of processed tilapia
filets and whole frozen tilapia are growing at the rate of 30 percent
to 40 percent each year, Stocks said.
Stocks predicts that "all aquaculture species raised on farms
will increase due to the decrease in the wild catch from the waters
throughout the world." Stocks also believes "there'll
be consolidation because of supply. The cost of production is lower
when you raise more. Smaller guys won't be able to compete. It's
Not all the Ninth District states have gotten their feet wet, although
some are testing the water. Jerry Mills, South Dakota's aquaculture
extension contact said, "The industry is not very darn big.
I could count on one hand the number of producers we have."
Actually, it would take just two fingers. And North Dakota had eight
fish farms as of the 1997 agricultural census.
The industry is a bit bigger in Michigan's Upper Peninsula, home
to nine licensed commercial fish farms, said Ron Kinnunen, district
extension sea grant agent for the U.P. Kinnunen said the industry
hasn't taken off there because of the cold water temperatures and
the high electricity costs to pump water. But there is some potential
for expansion, he said, adding that the region's looking into using
heated water from a power plant to raise yellow perch.
With 23 licensed commercial fish ponds, Montana appears to have
a larger industry. But sources there said Montanans are too busy
raising cattle and grain to worry about aquaculture. Angelin Stonebraker,
aquaculture specialist with the Montana Department of Agriculture,
said 10 of the 23 ponds are fee-fishing operations, which is not
considered true aquaculture.
In many cases, it appears the industry will get hooked where the
main ingredientwateris readily available. In the district,
that means Wisconsin, Minnesota and possibly Michigan's Upper Peninsula,
although none has the natural resources of Idaho to tap into.
Researchers are looking at innovative approaches to fish farming,
but with limited success. Stonebraker, for example, said the department
is looking into diversifying the state's ag sector by using farm
wastewater to grow fish, but existing farms are not faring very
well. Jim Peterson, the fish health coordinator with Montana's Fish
Wildlife and Parks said, "I think the water supply for commercial
facilities is limited, and it's not the right market in Montana."